I’m writing this column well in advance of the election — which, from the linguistic or semantic point of view, I expect to resemble an explosion in a sewer. I can wait to comment on that. I also think that readers may appreciate a break from it. So, in advance of the dread electoral event, I’ll make some comments on verbal behavior that is regrettable, and wrong, and sometimes provocative of the expression, “People have been hanged for less!”, but looks more like chronic disease than a sudden collapse of all vital organs.
Here, then, are a few of the expressions I’ve been Watching, because they won’t go away.
Is it worse to mean nothing, or to get the meaning wrong?
Start with pandemic. The intended effect of this silly word is to cow people into silence. “In normal times we would enjoy assisting you in person. During the pandemic, however, we request you to visit our website and complete the form provided in the Relationships section . . .” But how is a pandemic different from a disease? From the flu, for instance? From the common cold, which can turn into pneumonia, which can kill old people? And how exactly does a “pandemic” keep someone on the other end of a phone connection from assisting you in person? What pandemic is supposed to do is keep you from objecting to any treatment that your betters mete out to you. The word for this is:
Unacceptable — although it’s too bad that unacceptable has become another word for “acceptable.” Just before Twitter let loose another wave of censorship, this was the headline in the New York Post:
Twitter CEO admits handling of blocked Post article was “unacceptable”
That word wasn’t the Post’s fault; it’s what the CEO had said. But he meant what unacceptable generally means: “Too bad, sucker. I’m not doing anything about it.”
Is it worse to mean nothing, or to get the meaning wrong? Let’s think about beg the question. This venerable phrase has a meaning, a useful meaning, but it isn’t “prompt the question” or “lead to the question.” The meaning is “make a mistake in logic or argument” — the mistake of presenting a thing that needs to be proven as a thing that’s already assumed.
Trump is a traitor who should be removed from office. —Oh, why do you think so? Do you think a traitor like him deserves to be president?
You have a right to free speech but not to be offensive. —Oh? Why? Obviously, you don’t have a right to attack someone’s, uh, religion.
It’s useful to have a label for such “arguments,” and begging the question is the traditional phrase. Never mind that this is a colorful though bad translation of the dead Latin petitio principii; it’s annoying that 90% of the time beg the question is used as a pseudo-learned substitute for “I want to talk about something else now.”
Watching Fox News a few years ago, I noticed that the on-air people, who had been addicted to the wrong usage of beg the question, had suddenly dropped it, saying instead “This prompts the question.” Some backstage person with better English than the talking heads was obviously trying to educate them. Then he or she must have left, because the bad usage came back — became, indeed, universal. Recently there seems to have been another personnel change, because right and wrong usages can both be heard. We’ll see which exterminates the other. I’m a pessimist; I’m betting on the wrong one.Many bad contemporary usages suggest that speakers, writers, and influencers are not reading books and are, therefore, in my opinion, not nearly as smart as they’re cracked up to be. We hear much, for example, about schemes for the “abolishment of police departments.” I would think that people who are concerned with race-related issues would be tempted, at some point, to read about the abolition movement, but they appear to have resisted that temptation. Either that, or they went looking for a book about the abolishment movement, and failed.
The phrase (and ordinarily the thing) is a concoction of those witches’ covens periodically attended by people whose daily occupation is to make our lives unbearable.
And what about headlines like this: “Battle Royale: Trump, Biden Clash . . .” (Fox, again, October 22)? Sorry, the word is royal, OK? It’s a common word, something that we’ve had around the house for a very long time. The phrase battle royal dates from the 18th century; the royale variant comes from a James Bond movie. Isle Royale is a fascinating place in Lake Superior, but even that is pronounced “Royal.” Again, don’t you read or listen?
A good gauge of the inverted relationship between number of words read and number of words written is the almost universal belief among current professional writers that infamous means something like “very famous.” Fox News — but it could have been any News — commented in this way about the revelation that C-SPAN pundit and purported political genius Steve Scully had falsely claimed that a partisan message on his Twitter account had been put there by hackers:
The situation conjures up memories of the infamous hacking claim made by MSNBC host Joy Reid, who once claimed hackers planted homophobic rhetoric on her pre-fame blog. The FBI was allegedly summonsed in the case, too, but never confirmed that she was a victim of hackers.
The authors of this account plainly didn’t think that Reid (and by the way, what talent agency does MSNBC employ to find its intellectual authorities?) was guilty of infamy. They said she was, but that’s not what they meant. They did appear to believe that her claim was famous (which it isn’t). So they might profit from reading the 5th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury . . .
Do they think you’re covered by the 5th Amendment only if your crime is very famous? But these may be writers, not readers. What reader of books would come up with the word summonsed?
Well, you say, why not summonsed (which is not at all rare these days)? The answer is, there’s already a perfectly good word for what you want to say, and it’s summoned. End of story. But wait! There’s another reason. Summoned has two consonant sounds at the end. The grotesque summonsed has three, and it isn’t a pretty combination: n-z-d. So why go there? Possibly because you’ve never heard the word summoned but you have, perhaps while following some sensational trial, heard the word summons, and you’ve never read very much, because reading is a bore, so you imagine that there’s a verb called summonsed. That’s one explanation. Another is that you believe that length or difficulty, but mainly length, enhances the effect of what you say.
More about rhetorical lengthening below. Right now, let’s confront that horrid piece of manipulation, best practices.
For elected representatives and unelected bureaucrats, length of time before a microphone is the ultimate proof of success.
Who doesn’t want the best? But the phrase (and ordinarily the thing) is a concoction of those witches’ covens periodically attended by people whose daily occupation is to make our lives unbearable — the CYA attorneys, the Human Resources Hitlers, the ambitious men and women with degrees in administration, and, of course, the covid managers and mask enforcers. This folk owes no loyalty to anyone, including the businesses that employ them. What they care about is The Profession, with which they unite themselves like drones returning to the mother ship, in perpetual “conferences,” “seminars,” and “workshops.” This goes double for their likes in the academic world. Out of such professional collaborations come best practices, meaning “standards” by which “the profession” shall handle the various situations and people it encounters. By “people” I mean you and me, and by “encounters” I mean “controls.”
Especially important is the handling of disruptive situations, situations in which someone might actually complain about the way things are being run. Best practices are rules and regulations that determine how complainers are to be dealt with, whenever they confront a member of The Profession. “I’m sorry, Ms. Smith, our Code of Best Practices prevents us from commenting on questions of that kind.” Naturally, followers of this religion have to be trained in its mysteries and rituals, and there is never a shortage of professional people salivating over the idea of training everyone else, too. Barbara Bollier, a retired physician and Democratic nominee for the Senate from Kansas, recently made news in this way:
After offering praise for Australia’s gun-confiscation program, Bollier said a limited number of Australians were able to own guns “out in the Bush” but noted “there’s all these specific requirements and training.” She said she similarly supports training requirements for gun ownership in America.“Who thinks you can just go out and have a gun?” she said. “Seriously, you can’t drive a car without training, you can’t basically do anything without some kind of training.”
People whose libido warms to best practices appear also to be attracted to the idea of reimagining. As with best practices, there is the assumption that somebody — who is never you — already knows the outcome of whatever process of change is being imagined. Who will do the reimagining when we, for instance, “reimagine the police”? Presumably, it’s the people who are dumb enough to use that word. But who imagined the police to begin with? Nobody. Imagination is not an external drive that you attach to the social computer and voila! you start downloading your precious thoughts and feelings, which everybody else has to obey. Imagine, reimagine, whatever — these are college words. People in colleges imagine lots of things, including things that don’t exist or make no sense. The police were not imagined in this way. Neither was “the criminal justice system,” gas stations, baseball, or escargots. Reimagine is just another aggressive academic term — orientalism, mass incarceration, transphobia (phobia? who’s afraid of transsexuals?), community values, queering, postcolonialism — that have no referent in the outside world and no definition even in the academic world.
Reimagine has another disability. It’s a romantic word, suggestive of lying on banks of flowers like Ferdinand the Bull, watching the clouds and dreaming things that have never been dreamed before, but its application is by no means Shelleyan. The reimaginers are hard-bitten apparatchiks, whose agenda was laid out long, long ago, with no reimagining attached. Their purpose is to make you conform to a party platform, ordinarily one that will give them jobs.
If this be cynicism and reductionism, make the most of it.
Bad writers and speakers are not content with abusing the language; they are impelled to lengthen the abuse. They need to make everything long. They imagine that “long” means “heavy” (which is usually true), and “heavy” means “important” (which is far from true). This assumption is most evident in political discourse, in which no one ever dreams of establishing his intelligence by saying something briefly and clearly, or by omitting all the stuff that everyone in the audience except people addicted to daytime TV can recognize as mindless talking points. For elected representatives and unelected bureaucrats, length of time before a microphone is the ultimate proof of success. That’s how bright they are.
But we find this also in the media. If you can stand to listen to Sean Hannity, you will see the talent of lengthening exerted to its full extent. No one could possibly be better than he at saying the same thing over and over, like a priest who’s gotten stuck on one line in the liturgy. The Hannity show has “news,” and it has “important topics,” and it has “guests,” some of whom actually have something to say, if Hannity would let them talk, but in his version of the mass, none of that gets any more time than it takes to say “Amen.” Even his questions are orations. The fact that he has the largest audience in political TV shows how many people mistake this guff for church and don’t mind that it’s conducted in something that might as well be Latin.
Lengthening, as I’ve suggested above, also takes place on the level of the word or phrase. You can find your remote and turn Hannity off, but it’s harder to escape from the lengthenings that appear everywhere else. I’ll mention two examples.
The new set of expressions is so odd, so awkward, so obviously a stupid substitute for some of the most common terms in the English language, that its elements are seldom witnessed in informal speech.
The first is advocate for. In the past, and it was not so long ago, there were two perfectly good locutions. Advocate, a transitive verb, was used like this: “She advocated a decrease in taxes.” Advocate for, intransitive, meant something that a lawyer (a public advocate) did as a professional job: “She advocated for the defendant.” Today, both advocate as a noun meaning “professional spokesman” and advocate as a simple, unaided transitive verb are on their way to obsolescence, drowned out by advocate-plus-for as a term for every kind or argumentative discourse, especially discourse directed at abstract and meaningless ends, and by advocate as a word for people who specialize in that discourse. First there was “She advocated for a new school.” Soon this progressed to “She advocates for gender equality.” Rapidly it became “She is a lifelong equality advocate.” Thus, even the noun was filled with hot air — and why not, since the original meaning of advocate, not to mention equality, had disappeared into the memory hole? Ballots now identify John Smith as a “Public Advocate.” Meaning what? Meaning nothing except pomposity. And that was the purpose of the original, and illiterate, addition of for. It made advocate longer, and if something is longer, it’s more important.
My second example of lengthening is gifting and gifted, when used as replacements for give and gave. They are remarkable instances of the phenomenon. There was no reason whatever, no good reason, that is, to stop saying, “I gave the Claghorn Foundation a thousand dollars” and start saying, “I gifted the Claghorn Foundation with a thousand dollars,” or to replace “At Christmas, many people give to the animal shelter” with “At Christmas, many people are gifting,” etc. The difference is that the replacements are long, cumbersome, and self-important — and therefore the words of choice for self-important persons. The new set of expressions is so odd, so awkward, so obviously a stupid substitute for some of the most common terms in the English language, that its elements are seldom witnessed in informal speech. “What a nice book! Are you really gifting me with that book?” “Yes indeed! I’m gifting it to you.” No, thank God; you don’t hear that, not yet. The prevalent use of the past tense (gifted) is probably a solemnity import from a form of gifted that has a special use, the gifted that means “endowed by providence with special and advantageous talents,” as in a gifted child. Now, with the addition of a syllable and a preposition, you too can feel providential, whenever you think about how you did not give, but gifted, that waiter with a dollar extra.
Finally I want to notice the king of all mystifications, the monarch who manifests himself to us whenever providence and our needfulness directs him so to do: 404. As in 404 Not Found. As you know, it’s the message that appears whenever Google or Word or any of the other crappy platforms on which we base our lives proves itself incapable of finding something. No explanation. No desire to be helpful. No account, even, of what the magic 404 may mean.
I ask you, what was 403? Maybe that was more helpful.